January 9th, 2006

Harmful to minors?

I recently finished reading Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, a book by Judith Levine that stirred a great deal of controversy when it was published in 2002. The book argues that it is not helpful to automatically associate fear, panic, or malevolence with everything related to sex and children.

Concerned Women for America quickly issued a statement statement condemning the book, in which Robert Knight said that “Child molesters are getting a big boost toward legitimacy with the University of Minnesota Press’ publication of a book advocating sex with children.” He went on to say:

Joycelyn Elders, who was Bill Clinton’s surgeon general, wrote the foreword for this evil tome. Not content to advocate for adults teaching children to masturbate, she is giving cover for adults having sex with kids—so long as the kids give their consent. Everybody except for the molesters and their apologists knows that children cannot give meaningful consent to sex.
(Joycelyn Elders lost her position as Surgeon General for suggesting at a conference on AIDS that it might be a good idea to promote masturbation as an alternative to riskier forms of sexual activity.)

Of course, the book does not advocate child abuse. The book simply recognizes the absurdity of pretending that sexuality is nonexistent before the age of 18 at which point it suddenly switches on like a light bulb. In fact, such an assumption is harmful: to categorically deny someone the authority to make decisions concerning their own body is a form of oppression.

Levine suggests that the degree of panic in current North American culture concerning anything having to do with children and sex is excessive—even hysterical (if i may be permitted to use that word). The San Diego Child Protective Services took a nine-year-old boy away from his mother because he had fondled his eight-year-old sister and poked her in the butt with a pencil. In 2001, an eight-year-old girl had “sexual harassment” entered in her elementary school record because she sent a note to a classmate asking if he wanted to be her boyfriend. Compare this to how we treat children who fight or steal: should all children who hit each other be taken away from their parents?

The chapter on sex education has a section amusingly entitled “No Sex, Please—We’re Sex Educators.” It seems that most sex education has very little (if anything) positive to say about sex. One teacher said:

You know, we talk a lot about AIDS and STDs, we talk about emotions and sexual identities, about different kinds of families, about, well, most everything. We say masturbation is normal and they shouldn't be ashamed or worried about it. And yes, we do discourage intercourse. But we never, ever talk about masturbation as pleasure or any other ways of having sexual pleasure.
Reducing sex education to the basic message don't have sex is again not only unhelpful but harmful—it fails to give students information on the relative levels of risk involved in different sexual activities and on less risky ways of experiencing pleasure. All they hear is that anything having to do with sex is equally forbidden.

This book is an example of straightforward analysis and logic cutting through a miasma of fear, and that's why i like it. It should be obvious that children are human beings and sexuality is part of being human, but for some reason, a lot of people seem unwilling to accept that.

In the last chapter, Levine zeroes in on the core of the problem:

Poverty is a single greatest “risk factor” for most every life-smashing condition a kid might be at risk for, save perhaps compulsive shopping. Among these are sexual risks, including unwanted pregnancy and too-early motherhood, AIDS, and sexual abuse.
She quotes David Gil, a social policy professor at Brandeis, who says:
Children are abused and their development tends to be stunted as a result of a broad range of perfectly legitimate social policies and public practices which cause, permit, and perpetuate poverty, inadequate nutrition, physical and mental ill-health, unemployment, substandard housing and neighborhoods, polluted and dangerous environments, schooling devoid of meaningful education, widespread lack of opportunities, and despair. The massive abuse and destruction of children is a by-product of the normal workings of our established social order and its political, economic, and cultural institutions. ... It is wrong to single out sexual abuse as the worst harm to children when child abuse is business as usual.

Think about it. Which is likely to be more effective for reducing unwanted teen pregnancy: telling teens ever more sternly not to have sex, or working to lift more families out of poverty?

Beware the Islamic owls!

Time for another stroke of brilliance from the ANTHOLOGY HOLY TANGO of Literature. I think this one might be my favourite.

I will be alarming
the Islamic owls
that are in
the barn

and which
you warned me
are very jittery
and susceptible to loud noises

Forgive me
they see so well in the dark
so feathery
and so dedicated to Allah
Ah, lovely.

(I still remember when we discussed the wheelbarrow poem with Mr. Duncan in Grade 10 English class and i complained bitterly about its pretentiousness.)